Books in a changing media landscape

Amongst all the rides, attractions and eateries in Disneyland Paris, there are many, many stores. They sell all kinds of merchandising‌—‌toys, clothing, bags, jewelry, and so on. But one thing struck me by its absence.

Media.

There were no Disney DVDs for sale, no CDs of film soundtracks, and no books. In short, there was nothing for sale that actually told any kind of story‌—‌and this seemed strange for a company that had built itself up on story, from simple five-minute Mickey Mouse cartoons through retellings of classic fairy tales to their own original stories.

It’s not as if there were no opportunities to incorporate books into the park. In Beauty And The Beast, Belle loves reading, so why not have a Belle-themed bookshop, with library ladders and dusty hidden corners?

Admittedly, Disneyland Paris have to cope with visitors from a wide range of countries, and although French and English seem to be the predominant languages utilised in the park, each title would need to be stocked in different languages, with different covers and so on. And why stock music and film anyway, when the trend is now for streaming?

This (like so much in the park) got me thinking.

children-403582_640There are always stories about the death of reading, and how nobody reads anymore. Why read, when it’s easier to turn on the TV or switch on Netflix or pop onto YouTube? There are figures suggesting that cinema is struggling, as home viewing utilises ever-growing size of screens, in increasing resolution, with high-quality sound-systems. Why bother leaving the house, queueing, paying for over-priced snacks and drinks, and having to cope with other people, when high-quality entertainment can be enjoyed in comfort at home?

And how can books‌—‌simple text on a flat, unmoving surface‌—‌compete with such incredibly immersive effects on the big screen (be that in a cinema or at home), or with the snappy dialogue and surrounding sound design?

Some people argue that they can’t. They point to the collapse of Borders and the struggles of Barnes & Noble. They talk of dwindling revenue for those who write‌—‌while big-name authors (King, Rowling, Patterson and so on) still earn fortunes, mid-list authors are forced to take on other work to supplement their writing careers.

Yet still, people read.

There’s a good chance that you’re one of those people who enjoy books, so you’ll instinctively know some of the reasons for this. You know the pleasure that comes from sinking into a story. You’ve experienced the transformation of words on a page into living images within your own imagination. You’ve felt the pull of a book, the yearning to get back to the story, and the way a tale lives on long after you’ve turned over the final page.

Maybe you value the solitude of reading, or how time can fly by when you’re deep in a great story. Maybe you love how reading can be done anywhere‌—‌on a chair, in bed, in the bath, on an exercise bike, on a bus, or how it can take over hours in an evening or be squeezed into a few minutes in a supermarket queue.

With technology, ways of reading are growing. Twenty years ago there were books. You either bought them or borrowed them from a library (or from friends). Sometimes it was hard to find the book you wanted‌—‌either it was too popular at the library, or too obscure for book stores to stock. You had to order the book, and wait weeks for it to be delivered to the book-store. But now, we have ebooks and print-on-demand. We might wait a couple of days for a physical book to arrive, but an ebook can be delivered within minutes.

And with ebooks, we’re no longer tied to a physical book. We have the ability to carry a whole library in an e-reader, or on a smart-phone. We need never be without a collection of books.

Technology increases the potential for inclusion, too. On-screen text size can be altered to suit individual needs and preferences, as can colour and brightness. Different interface systems‌—‌switches, voice control and even eye tracking‌—‌allow those with reduced physical ability to turn pages.

audiobook-3106985_640Then there are audiobooks. Yes, they’ve been around for years, first on cassettes and then on CDs‌—‌but with mp3, fast downloading and now streaming, audiobooks don’t require us to buy bulky physical copies. We’re not tied to large hi-fi equipment either. With our smart-phones, we can enjoy audiobooks wherever we are, whatever we are doing‌—‌driving, exercising, cleaning, gardening, resting. No longer are audiobooks only for those who struggle with physical reading, or those with long drives ahead of them. Now, they are open to anyone.

So is reading losing out to films and TV? I don’t think so. Film companies seem to rely on a small number of big-budget movies each year, so going to the cinema is becoming an occasional treat for many (and maybe it always was). And while TV shows increase in both number and (according to many) quality, with streaming this is becoming a more personal activity‌—‌we can watch on a big screen, or on a laptop or phone, with headphones plugged in.

If entertainment is becoming more personal, and more solitary, then why not reading? It is easier than ever to access book, and with the growth of independent publishing there are more books available than ever. And while the increase in ‘readers’ might not be huge, many of us who already read are doing so more often. I know that my reading has increased since getting an e-reader.

It’s worth considering the origins of film and TV stories, too. Many of these come from pre-existing stories in the form of books‌—‌and for the film and TV companies, this makes sense. If a story proves popular as a book, then it must ‘work’, and it’s arguably easier to adapt a pre-existing idea (that has shown itself to be popular) than to risk developing something new.

Think Harry Potter, or Twilight, or Lord Of The Rings/The Hobbit. Think Birdbox, or The Martian. So many good films come from books.

Also, consider franchises. Star Wars might have started with one film, but as the franchise grew, fans demanded more stories. Yes, there were more films, but they take a long time to develop. It’s quicker to produce books, and there are close to four hundred novels related to the Star Wars universe. And as more stories are developed, the fans become increasingly immersed in the whole franchise, and then demand even more stories.

Times change, and technology advances. People have more access to all kinds of media, and this is only going to increase. But there will always be readers, and there will always be books in one form or another.

Reading isn’t going away.

How audiobooks are different to text books

Once squarely aimed at the visually impaired, audiobooks continue to rise in popularity with a whole range of readers who want to enjoy books without holding a physical object or using their eyes to constantly scan screen or page. Audiobooks can be used while doing a whole range of other activities‌—‌driving/commuting, cleaning and gardening, exercising and walking, sitting in a chair relaxing, and so on. This enables those with busy lifestyles to devour more books, and are used by people from all walks of life. For many, it is not the primary (or, indeed, only) method for consuming books.

In some ways, this is storytelling coming full circle. Storytelling has always been an important social activity, and before the written word, before ‘reading’ was a thing, stories were told and devoured orally. Story-telling was used by religious leaders as a way of explaining their ideas. Ancient philosophy was told via story. Even now, when reading and writing are so commonplace, verbally telling stories is important. Parents and teachers read to children. People share stories when they meet up, sharing tales from their lives or sharing those they’ve heard from others. And there’s a long tradition of reciting ghost stories around a campfire.

Stories are meant to be shared, and this can occur through reading or speaking/listening (and through other means, but I won’t go into that here). But there are differences in how stories are shared, differences between the page and the voice.

podcast-3939905_1280It’s often said that a good writer has a distinctive voice, but so do narrators. With audiobooks, a poor narrator can kill a story, and a great narrator can make a good book even better. Sometimes, the success of a book is due, in part, to the success of the narrator, such as The Martian. It gained a following as Andy Weir shared it over his website, and sold well when he first published it, but it’s popularity really soared with the narration by R C Bray, leading to more sales of the book, and then a film deal (which is a whole other way of telling a story).

One way narrators can impact a story so much is in the nuances of voice they bring to a project. Some use different accents to distinguish characters’ dialogue, but there is so much more to ‘telling a good story’. The words on the page are only a starting point.

Think of the classic ‘punctuation is important’ sentences, ‘Let’s eat Grandma’, and it’s less cannibalistic alternative with an added comma, ‘Let’s eat, Grandma.’ Say those two examples out loud, and listen to the way your voice changes. In the second version, you’ll probably find that you pause at the comma. But listen closer, and you’ll notice how your pitch varies too. It’s likely that, in the first version, your voice rises on the first syllable of ‘Grandma’, but you’ll speak the second with different patterns of pitch.

You can also use voice to give differing emotions to the same sentence. Try it for yourself‌—‌imagine the second version said by a child eager to tuck into a family meal, and then by a bored teenager who wants their elderly relative to stop their reminiscences so that they can enjoy their food. Stress the first word, and the sentence becomes a plea to finally have food. Stress the word ‘eat’, and eating becomes the chosen activity from an undisclosed list. Stress ‘Grandma’, and we have another alternative, one where the speaker is maybe questioning the reality of the relationship.

To bring out all these meanings, the writer would need to use further sentences, or structure surrounding material in a way that made the nuanced meanings clear in context. But the narrator can paint these emotional pictures with three simple words.

writer-1421099_1280So narration can give meaning in ways that text cannot (at least, not as succinctly). But there are things in text that a narrator cannot easily convey. Think of spacing in poetry, especially in shape poems such as Lewis Carroll’s ‘A Mouse’s Tail’ from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.

Then there’s the textual syntax of things like text-message conversations, or the way Iain M Banks’ ships communicate in his Culture books. In my Shadows series, I use italics and <> symbols to denote tech-aided mind-to-mind communication (as opposed to the usual speech marks enclosing vocal communication), and I have no idea how a narrator would make an audible distinction between these.

There are other ways the appearance of text can aid meaning. Newspaper reports can be displayed in ways that look like old paper. Some books use maps, and others use diagrams or symbols‌—‌in Terry Pratchett’s Nation, a couple of characters communicate through drawing, and the different interpretations of these drawings are important to the story. A narrator would have to describe these drawings, which would very probably become cumbersome, and these parts of the book would struggle to work.

So text-based storytelling and vocal storytelling have their own pros and cons. But at the moment, audiobooks are almost always a straight reading of the text. The emotional nuances a narrator adds are often also ‘written’ into the text, and so the audiobook listener gets the same information twice.

In some ways, this makes me think of the early days of film and television, when productions were basically filmed plays. But as cameras became easier to manipulate, and editing techniques developed, film-makers understood how they could use this technology to tell stories in different ways to static, dialogue-heavy stage performances.

african-3408112_1280Maybe audiobooks should develop into their own form of storytelling. Maybe writers should produce two version of their stories, one for reading from the page, and another for narration. But writing and narration are different skills, just as producing a stage play and a film are very different processes, so maybe audiobooks will become close collaborations between writer and narrator, either stripping down the original text or working up from a ‘bare bones’ version of the story. Then, the audiobook will become not a repetition of the text, but a complement to it, a way of telling the story the writer created but utilised to capitalise on the audio environment. If a narrator can impart meaning through their performance that would take a couple of sentences of text to impart, then the audiobook can become leaner and more focused, allowing the story to take advantages of all the medium can offer.

After all, if so many people are increasingly opting to devour stories through their ears, doesn’t it make sense to provide them with the best experiences possible?